Libya’s General Khalefa Haftar. Photo by Magharebia, Wikipedia Commons.
By Arab News
By Linda S. Heard
So-called freedom activists are beating their chests over the landslide victory of Field Marshall Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, set to be inaugurated as Egypt’s new president next week. And they perceive the Libyan people’s backing of Gen. Khalifa Hiftar’s anti-militia onslaught as a step back from their revolutionary goals. The idea of strongmen prioritizing stability over individual freedoms is anathema to many, but the stark truth is that western-style democracy cannot flourish amid a climate of violence.
The misbehavior of the few has had a negative impact on the majority and now ordinary people in Libya and Egypt just want to get on with their lives. Many who sought democracy now equate it with anarchy, a sad truth that is incontestable among ordinary working people and owners of small businesses, experiencing pain in their pockets. They’ve rightly or wrongly concluded that there’s no democracy without stability.
That’s glaringly true in Libya that’s become awash with heavy weapons, feuding militias and foreign militants. Almost every household has a gun for self-defense. That was not how Libyans imagined their country post-revolution. They didn’t go to the streets calling for the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in order to get a lawless land reminiscent of the Wild West or an impotent government unable to keep them safe or even to gain control over Libya’s main economic resource — oil and gas. And Egyptians didn’t topple Mubarak to get serial protests, growing joblessness or unsafe streets prompting the flight of investors and tourists.
Gen. Hiftar is motivated to consolidate a strong state for without it the country risks splintering into armed enclaves that will ultimately pose a threat to its neighbors. Indeed, last week, president-in-waiting El-Sissi revealed that Libya poses a security threat to Egypt. Earlier, he co-opted tribal heads living in the vicinity of the border to assist in keeping out “terrorists” and their weapons.
Likewise, another of Libya’s neighbors Algeria has similar concerns and has followed suit with appeals to tribes for help in securing its border. On Friday, thousands of Libyans in Tripoli and Benghazi rallied in support of the retired general supported by the Ministry of Interior, the army and the air force, chanting, “The Army of Dignity is coming.” No matter how well meaning Libya’s new premier or Parliament may be, in practical terms, their ability to effectively govern is absent. In fact, the government has resorted to operating out of secret locations. At the same time, there are increasing divisions among lawmakers threatening parliamentary longevity.
It’s rumored that both Egypt and Algeria are quietly rooting for Gen. Hiftar’s success, which has a ring of authenticity since all three countries are afflicted by the same terrorist disease to greater or lesser extents, but diplomatic niceties prevent them from being upfront with their backing. In the event the general manages to subdue armed elements, the opportunity exists for these North African nations to form a powerful security bloc. Whether or not Egypt or Algeria, or both, would consider supporting Hiftar’s efforts with intelligence, communications technology, arms or perhaps even boots on the ground remains an open question.
Relations between Cairo and Algiers have cooled in recent years, so it’s interesting that during a visit to Algeria by the Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, last week, to attend a Non-aligned Movement summit, he discussed Libya’s security vacuum with the Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, while a foreign ministers’ meeting on the same topic has been penciled-in. According to Ahram Online, Emad Gad of the Al-Ahram research center anticipates “stronger cooperation between Egypt, Algeria and the military leaders in Libya…” and it’s notable that Field Marshall El-Sissi has received warm congratulations on his win from the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who was recently reelected to a fourth term in office garnering over 81 percent of the vote.
I understand that there are those among my media colleagues who are appalled by what they would term an authoritarian trend or even a betrayal of revolutionary goals and while I can empathize with their sentiments, I don’t believe that the pursuit of ideals, however worthy those ideals might be, can save these countries from falling apart or, in the worst case scenario, ending up in a state of bloody civil war like Syria. The best way forward once stability is in place; is for democratic institutions to be strengthened with space for people’s voices to be heard via their parliamentary representatives and political parties. There’s a lesson to be learned from the past three tumultuous years — and that is transitioning to democracy is no walk in the park, but rather a marathon.